Monday, April 30, 2012

TOP STORY >> First Electric celebrates longevity

Leader staff writer

A longtime First Electric Cooperative member — who won her first electric stove at the power company’s 1954 annual meeting in Perryville — was hoping to get lucky again at its 75th anniversary Thursday when a drawing for a $75 bill credit was held.

Jean Crow said the cooperative has been lighting her home for nearly 60 years, since she and her husband moved in 1953 from Mabelvale into her home near First Electric’s Jacksonville office at 1000 S. J.P. Wright Loop Road.

She’ll be 90 in September.

“One of my neighbors at the time worked for the co-op,” she said. “I think that’s a wonderful thing, all eight different bills automatically get deducted (from my bank account). That saves you a lot of postage. It saves everybody time and money.”

She remembers going to the annual meetings, which “had a carnival effect.” They had things for kids to ride. Eat all the hot dogs you could, tents.”

A big change over the years, she said, was “the fancier buildings.”

She said, “I appreciate getting those checks” — the capital credits that are profits First Electric returns to its members every year. The first time, she said, “I was surprised. I was hoping they’d send one every year. I don’t remember (how much it was). It seems like one time it was like over $100. But it seemed like most of the time it was in the $70s or $80s.”

New technology was emphasized in a film on First Electric’s history and several representatives with the cooperative commented on its growth at the reception.

Tonya Everhart, vice president of marketing and communications, said, “It’s the technological advancements that have allowed us to grow and evolve from a small, rural electric cooperative into the 31st largest cooperative in the United States today.”

Robert Hill, board of directors chairman, said, “Whenever this thing was started back in 1937, they probably started with maybe a thousand bucks. We’re looking at a $417 million institution now. The unique thing about being a co-op is we return profits back to the members. Over the period of years since 1937, we’ve returned back to its members over $25 million in profits.”

President and chief executive officer Don Crabbe, who has worked at electric co-ops for 36 years, said, “The greatest thing is to have the love of God in your heart, but the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your home. Those words were spoken by a farmer out of Tennessee over 70 years ago. That’s the kind of passion people had that didn’t have electricity. We want to continue that type of passion with our service in all that we provide you today. We are definitely owned by those we serve. We have no reason to exist except to serve.

“When we have the ice storms, we have the tornadoes, we have the catastrophic events that occur, that’s when our folks in the field really step up,” he said. “We will have to go through times where we’ll have to beg them or actually go out and get them to bring them out of the field because they don’t want to leave someone without power. It’s that kind of passion of service in all that our employee group has that we believe makes us different from other providers,” Crabbe added.

First Electric was incorporated April 26, 1937, as the first electric cooperative in Arkansas under the federal Rural Electrification Act that was signed the year before by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was one of Roosevelt’s New Deal stimulus programs designed to improve the lives of farmers suffering economically from the Great Depression, floods and droughts.

Della Fraser, one of the co-op’s first members, couldn’t make it to Thursday’s event, but in the video, she shared her experience transitioning from studying by the light of a kerosene lamp to that of a bulb.

“It was so bright. It was so pretty. It was so wonderful,” she said.

Ernie Stark, a former lineman, described how linemen would use a quarter-stick of dynamite, “shooting that dirt out of that hole” used to set a pole and straightening that pole with four 15-foot pipes and a back hoe.

The narrator said, according to the 1950 census, more than 76 percent of Arkansas farmers had electric service when fewer than 10 percent in the nation had power in the 1930s.

Lois Ann Bryant helped First Electric members use electric appliances from 1969 to 1974. She talked in the video about the invention of the microwave oven.

“It just had sort of a dangerous connotation at that time. I think safety was something they were wondering about. Some people were afraid the food might not be safe. That was something we had to overcome,” she said.

Rick Jones started working on outages for the company in 1978, before a dispatch system was set up. He explained how the phonebook had the names of all the employees who did that and people had to call until they reached the person who was on duty. When Jones was sent out, his wife took the calls and he had to call her to make sure there were no other outages in the area so he wouldn’t have to make two trips.

First Electric constructed its first substation in Perry County in 1964.

Riceland Electric in Stuttgart became part of First Electric in 1991 and Riceland’s office became another district office of the Jacksonville co-op.

After the film, Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher signed a proclamation establishing Thursday as First Electric Cooperative day and a $7,500 check was presented to Alderman Reedie Ray for the co-op’s Operation Round-Up.

Operation Round-Up is a member-supported program that funds donations to nonprofits and scholarships for high school seniors. Members who participate allow their bills to be rounded up to the nearest dollar.

Ray said that money is put into an escrow account for three months and then distributed.